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Senators, opposition set to challenge pot bill age limits, prison terms in committee

By Peter Mazereeuw      

The legislation could face a rough ride in the Senate if it is swept through the House without amendments.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, left, and Health Minister Jane Philpott are two of four ministers in the Trudeau government involved in legalizing marijuana. National Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale are also involved with the file. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Rules for the minimum age at which Canadians could buy pot, how many plants apartment-dwellers could grow, and lengthy maximum prison sentences could be challenged by Senators and opposition MPs as the government’s marijuana legislation passes through parliamentary committees.

The chair of the House Justice Committee, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather (Mount Royal, Que.), defended the proposed Cannabis Act as well-balanced legislation, but Parliamentarians from other caucuses say they expect or would support amendments to be proposed for what some see as a “first draft” of what will eventually be made law.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least an amendment dealing with the age factor,” said Conservative Sen. Bob Runciman (Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, Ont.), who chairs the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

While Sen. Runciman likely won’t be part of that committee if it reviews the bill—he is slated for mandatory retirement this summer—he said some of his caucus colleagues have also expressed concern that the bill could allow Canadians as young as 18 to legally access marijuana, given the damaging effects it could have on the developing brain.

Sen. Runciman said he was personally in favour of an amendment to remove minor marijuana possession offences from the criminal records of individuals charged prior to the legalization of the drug, echoing a call from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair (Outremont, Que.). Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has said that a blanket pardon for pot convictions was not on the table.  

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) introduced Bill C-45, legislation to legalize marijuana, in the House on April 13, alongside another bill to adjust impaired driving legislation to account for a world in which pot is legal. The government has not yet announced which House committee will review C-45 once it passes second reading.

‘I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least an amendment dealing with the age factor,’ said Conservative Senator Bob Runciman. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

While C-45 was sponsored by the justice minister and changes the Criminal Code, Liberal MP Bill Blair (Scarborough Southwest, Ont.), parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice and one of the leads on the legalization file, hinted that the House Health Committee was also a candidate to receive the bill.

“The decision to what committee this will go forward to is really the responsibility of the ministers, but I will tell you that both bills were introduced by the minister of justice,” Mr. Blair told The Hill Times.

“The cannabis bill has a very strong health component in its regulations, whereas the impaired bill is more focused on criminal law and justice, and so those are two things that will be, I’m sure, considered by the ministers when they make the determination what’s the most appropriate committee for each of the bills to go to.”

A haze of marijuana smoke hangs over Parliament Hill on April 20, during the annual celebration of the drug on Hill’s front lawn. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Conservative MP Len Webber (Calgary Confederation, Alta.), vice-chair of the House Health Committee, said he and some others in the Conservative caucus also take exception to the minimum age for pot consumption.

“Eighteen is far too young of an age. The brain is still developing in children…up until the age of 24, 25,” said Mr. Webber, who said he became well-versed in the issues that arise with marijuana use when he served on the board of the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission before being elected to federal office.

Conservative health critic Colin Carrie (Oshawa, Ont.) has also taken issue in the past with the 18-year minimum age for legal marijuana, which was proposed—with leeway for the provinces and territories to raise that age minimum—at the end of November by a task force struck by the government to examine the possible framework for legalizing the drug.

Mr. Carrie equated an 18-year age minimum with a “political decision” that could harm children, in the House in December.

Mr. Webber and NDP MP Alistair MacGregor (Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, B.C.), a vice-chair of the House Justice Committee and his party’s justice critic, both said maximum sentences in the Cannabis Act of 14 years in prison for a variety of offences seemed unduly harsh.

Mr. MacGregor said rules in the bill that cap the number of marijuana plants legally allowed in a household at four should also be examined in committee, particularly the way they could apply to people living in apartments or condominiums.

Residents who share a household face a maximum of 14 years in prison if they grow more than four plants between them, under the proposed law. The same maximum sentence could be applied to those who sell or distribute more than the legally allowed amount of marijuana, adults who sell to minors, those who sell illicit marijuana grown outside of the regulated sector, and those who export marijuana. Youth, or those whose offences are classified as summary rather than indictable, face lower sentences.

Max penalties for ‘draconian’ offences

Mr. Housefather, the Liberal chair of the House Justice Committee, told The Hill Times he believed the cannabis bill and its impaired driving counterpart, C-46, were “very well crafted” as is.

Mr. Housefather, who holds a pair of law degrees from McGill University, said the 14-year maximum sentences were a way for the government to send “a message that you do not sell to minors,” and stressed that there are no mandatory minimum sentences included in the bill.

“A 14-year maximum penalty is meant for a draconian situation where somebody, you know, is running a big ring selling to minors and refusing to heed the law,” he said.

Senator Tony Dean, a member of the Independent Senators Group who sits on the Social Affairs, Science, and Technology Committee—the closest thing the Senate has to a health committee—said he would watch to see which issues were amended in the House before speculating about which parts of C-45 should be amended, noting early debate over the age minimums, rules around the distribution of pot, what falls into provincial jurisdiction, and penalties for non-compliance.

The Senate will determine which committee reviews C-45 after it has been passed through the House.

Both Sen. Dean and Mr. MacGregor referred to C-45 as a “draft” law subject to revision. The Liberals have the power, through their majority in the House and in House committees, to determine what changes, if any, are ultimately made to the legislation before it heads to the Senate. The Upper Chamber is more of a wildcard for the government in that it’s made up of 39 Conservatives, 35 Senators in the Independent Senators Group, 18 Liberals who are not part of the governing Liberal caucus, and seven other independents.

—With files from Rachel Aiello



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